Okay, I'll admit it. I was one of many that praised Waze for its clever use of crowd sourced traffic information to create an application that attracted millions of users and a billion dollars, from Google. I have saluted Waze as a disrupter of the traffic information industry. And I have recognized its contribution to moving traffic technology forward by calling attention to the transformational role that mobile apps can play in the traffic industry.
Well, after a Friday ride along with WTOP's traffic and weather director Jim Battagliese I can honestly say Google overpaid for Waze. And it is no surprise that Waze is now knocking on the doors of radio and television broadcasters and state DOTs looking for incident data. Waze has discovered what competitors such as INRIX, HERE and TomTom already knew - you need detailed, accurate and reliable incident data to create a viable traffic business.
I did not set out on the ride along to conduct a scientific analysis of Waze's traffic reporting and I have a large number of industry associates and friends who regularly advise me of the usefulness of Waze for avoiding speed traps and red-light cameras - along with the accuracy of the application's traffic flow and incident reports. But time and again during a 3+ hour afternoon drive in Washington, DC, Waze regularly failed to identify local traffic conditions accurately.
Waze was not alone in this failure. TomTom, too, repeatedly failed to reproduce real-time traffic conditions and fell victim to the classic rendering of traffic information on mobile devices that appears to be nothing better than guesswork, as opposed to a refined and scientific rendering of traffic reality.
The importance of "getting it right" was brought home to me as Jim happened upon two traffic incidents and got actively involved in assisting the drivers. The steps included:
- Parking the yellow WTOP van with its flashing emergency lights in a protective, high profile position upstream from the disabled vehicle
- Alerting the radio station of the incident and its impact on traffic
- Donning a reflective vest and assessing the condition of the vehicle and its occupants
- Alerting the station to the on-scene status and any need for emergency assistance
- Directing traffic, as necessary
- Briefing arriving emergency responders or service providers
- Updating the station on traffic impacts during the process of clearing the incident
Traffic apps routinely identify incidents late, fail to deliver timely updates of the processing of the scene while it is in progress, and then fail to accurately identify the point at which traffic has returned to free flow and the incident is clear. It was truly amazing to observe the reporting of the incidents in the TomTom and Waze apps as the scenes were being processed. It was clear from the timing that both apps were dependent on the reports coming from WTOP.
I learned a lot from the ride along:
- Radio stations and their traffic spotters are often the first to report traffic incidents
- Passing motorists do not always call 911 when they pass breakdowns or accidents
- There are a lot of moving parts to processing a vehicle breakdown or accident
- Reporting and interpreting traffic information is complex and difficult work
There is a reason WTOP pays as much attention as it does to traffic information - it is the single biggest draw for the radio station, followed closely by weather. In fact, the importance of traffic and weather colors the choice of news stories reported on WTOP, which frequently features traffic and transportation related stories.
WTOP already benefits from the traffic-reporting (ie. crowd-sourcing) support of its listeners, but is now putting together a program to reward and recognize traffic reporters - details to come. The station is also looking into creating a mobile app of its own.
Waze is not getting the traffic right in the DC area - or at least it was not on the day of my drive - in spite of claiming to have more than 11,000 "Wazers" in the area using and sharing data with the app. It is clearly not a numbers game. WTOP has listeners calling in traffic reports regularly during rush hour - too many to answer them all. What's missing is the wisdom to turn the inputs of the crowd into accurate, actionable information.
The idea of crowd-sourced traffic information has always been a part of broadcast radio traffic reporting - going all the way back to Shadow Traffic's days in the New York City market when spotters were spying on traffic patterns using binoculars from the World Trade Center. Even today, municipalities such as Sao Paulo have traffic spotters on street corners and on tall buildings trying to understand real-time traffic conditions.
The message is clear - all traffic is local and all traffic requires observation. But crowd-sourced information is worthless without the interpretive genius of what Jim Battagliese calls a "traffic geek."
One thing an app (like a local version of Waze) will enable is a more personalized traffic reporting experience. Waze provides a personalized experience but without local expertise. With Waze there is breadth with no interpretive depth.
Traffic information broadcasters have depth but will always struggle to simultaneously satisfy all of their listeners 90% of whom don't care about 90% of the traffic information they are getting. WTOP is unique in that it provides two minutes of information in each of its "on-the-8's" broadcasts - significantly more than most in the industry.
Crowd-sourced information in the hands of a traffic geek is priceless and powerful. One of WTOP's chief rivals, WAMU, produces its traffic reports remotely, but the reports are voiced by uber traffic geek Jerry Edwards. Jerry may be working from Florida, but the camera feeds, incident reports and flow data paint a very different picture for him than they would to an unpracticed eye.
Waze has the right idea in crowd-sourcing its traffic data - and the app is invaluable to millions of users and fans - but it cannot replace the insight of a local traffic geek. Waze wants to tap into the radio industry's traffic geeks and has spoken with WTOP after first tying up with the local Fox television franchise two years ago. Waze knows the power of broadcast to extend the reach of its brand after its roaring success combating Carmaggedon in Los Angeles three years ago.
But television doesn't do much for Waze beyond promoting its brand and networks have plenty of alternatives to Waze including Clear Channel Total Traffic and Weather's SigAlert, Radiate, newcomer GeoTraffic and INRIX. For radio traffic broadcasters the Waze conversation is a non-starter.
WTOP hopes to leverage the wisdom of the crowd and the sophistication of the traffic geek into its own app later this year. There is no question that traffic information broadcasters around the world are looking at launching their own apps. While these broadcasters will not want to distract listeners from the over the air signal - they will want to protect their local traffic franchise. Broadcasters know that traffic information sells - just ask Waze.